All Quiet on the Western Front is, in many ways, a cinematic oddity. Sandwiched between the two world wars, it’s a strident anti-war film where the main characters are German soldiers. If this movie had come out a decade later, that would not have been the case I am sure. There was no censor code in 1930 to worry about, so the studio opted to let the film depict the horrors of war to the best that 1930’s special and make-up effects technology would allow due to the gravity of the story. It may even be the first real anti-war film.
It also was banned in Nazi Germany for making Germans look weak and banned in Poland for making Germans look too good. Go figure.
The basic plot to All Quiet on the Western Front, based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, depicts a group of German school boys, 18 years old from the looks of things, who are swept up in the patriotic fervor their country is going through when war is declared against the nation’s enemies, leading into the first World War. Gradually, as the boys become more experienced soldiers, their views of war take on the more cynical tone that more veteran soldiers hold, and they die off one by one. Meanwhile, the people back home are still eating up the propaganda with a metaphorical spoon.
It’s actually a bit surprising to see Germans portrayed this well, even if this was made before the Nazis rose to power. America had fought on the other side of the conflict, and it isn’t that surprising to see American filmmakers switch nationalities of their characters to make a point. Perhaps the characters were allowed to remain German so as not to offend the patriotic sensibilities of an American audience. After all, there’s no problem with showing the soldiers of other countries as less than paragons of heroism, is there? The only big American film I can think of off-hand from this general time period to depict American soldiers in the first World War was Sergeant York, and that one is an ode to the title figure’s heroism in a time of international strife. While Sergeant York hardly glorifies war, it was at least partially intended to show young American men the honor of military service when their country was in need, one of the bigger causes Alvin York championed during his lifetime.
But that’s a different film, and not one that seems to be on the AFI list. All Quiet is a very different animal. After being riled up with fervor by a propaganda-spewing teacher, a class full of young men all go off to join the army to get their share of the glory and honor of combat. Their dreams are shattered very quickly when their trainer shows up, a man they know as the friendly mailman on the outside. Here in the army, there’s nothing friendly about Corporal Himmelstoss. He’s cruel, even taking away the leave the unit earned before they are shipped off to the front. All the young men learn from him seems to be what it feels like to deliberately stick your face in the mud.
The true lessons come from an older soldier named Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky. Kat has been in the army for a while, and he knows the real way to survive for the most part. He knows the food will run out and how to get more. He knows how to dodge shells. And he’s no idealist. The younger soldiers, led by Paul Baumer, take a shine to the man and take his advice as much as they can.
It isn’t enough.
The young men are, over time, decimated. Paul was their leader in the classroom, and here he seems to be more of a survivor, the one who takes the most from Kat’s lessons. As his former classmates lost their limbs, lives, and sanity, Paul seems to keep making it through the war. He’s a changed man. When he returns to his hometown on a few days leave, he overhears his former teacher still preaching glory to the fatherland to another group of young men, and asked to say a few words, delivers a more truthful message than the students want to hear. And it isn’t just the teacher. Most of the people in town, including Paul’s family, believe the war will soon be over and the German army will be pushing into Paris any day now. Only Paul’s mother seems genuinely worried for her son.
She isn’t wrong because one of themes of All Quiet is that anyone in the war zone can die. Returning to the front, Paul finds his former unit empty aside from one or two veterans and a handful of teenagers. Kat, the man who taught survival, is killed by a biplane dropping bombs, and Paul himself soon dies reaching for a butterfly across the battlefield in the film’s famous final shot.
Nature may be indifferent towards war, but by the time the film is half over, so are the soldiers. None of them really want to fight. If anything, they prefer spending time with each other doing what young men want to do, not going off to kill or die in the name of a cause none of them can actually name. Does the Kaiser want the war? No one seems able to tell, and if the Emperor doesn’t want a war, why should the common man?
For a film made almost 90 years ago, it is amazing how powerful it still is in delivering its message.
NEXT UP: Let’s get back into music without going full musical with the 1984 not-quite-a-true-biography Amadeus.